30 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Felix Bressart, and Frank Morgan
written by: Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, from a play by Miklós László
directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
NR, 99 min, 1940, USA
Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), a clerk at Matuschek's, is in love with his pen pal, a woman he's never met. As he arrives at their scheduled meeting, he discovers her to be Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), the fellow clerk he bickers with all day. Rather than reveal himself, he works to get her to fall for him naturally while making small inroads to undermine her ideal man.
The Shop Around the Corner marks the second entry in the 100 films series from director Ernst Lubitsch, a German immigrant who spoke in a halting English but who's films were usually filmed with layers of witty rapport. He possessed a great comic touch, but rarely went into slapstick. As a result, his films are enjoyable to no end. Sure you know that in the end the two leads will realize they are in love with each other, but you're having so much fun watching the proceedings, that you really don't care. Early in the film, Lubitsch inserts a running gag where every time the shop owner asks for an honest opinion, Felix Bressart's Pirovitch immediately leaves the room. He does this maybe five times in the first twenty minutes, and while it may appear to be a simple throwaway gag, he uses it to set a comedic tone for the entire film and give a little bit more depth to Bressart's character. Bressart, for his part, is one of those quirky character actors that populated the films of the 30's and 40's. He's the type of guy you expect to see in a black and white comedy. In fact, you have to wonder if the film might feel a little empty without him. Lubitsch must have thought so, as he employed him often in supporting roles.
James Stewart gives a fine performance here, but it's essentially the same performance he gives in most of his comedic films. In many ways he's the straight man, the somewhat injured party, if you will, and he plays the part accordingly. Stewart is aware of the duality of his relationship with Margaret Sullavan's character, so is able to play him as a man biding his time, waiting for the tides to turn in his favor. The real question is how will he spring this surprise? We have no delusions that he won't get the girl in the end, we just wonder how he'll go about doing it. Sullavan, on the other hand, has to play a woman in love with two different men on two completely different levels, who just happen to be the same man. Suffice to say, she drew the more difficult assignment. She does a fine job, as you'd expect from someone in Lubitsch's capable hands.
The more I think about it, the more strange it seems that this film set in Budapest has obviously not ventured far from a studio back lot. Everyone speaks english (even if all the signs are in another language), we only see a couple of basic sets, and there isn't anyone who seems to be anything but an average American. Yet we don't question the setting. Could that be what they mean by "the Lubitsch touch"?
 If all this sounds familiar, it's because it was recently remade as that dreadful Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy You've Got Mail (1998). Have no fear, the original is infinitely more enjoyable. So, if your significant other wants to watch You've Got Mail, suggest this instead. It's the same premise, minus all the rubbish, and you won't feel as if you're sacrificing any film snob integrity.
 The other being Ninotchka (1939), the Greta Garbo vehicle he filmed while waiting for his cast to become available for this film.
 Obviously not, but it is late and I felt like ending on a somewhat clever note.
29 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Mikhail Kaufman and uncredited documentary subjects
written by: Dzirga Vertov
directed by: Dzirga Vertov
NR, 68 min, 1929, Soviet Union
The story behind Dzirga Vertov's Chelovek s kino-apparatom (i.e. The Man with a Camera) is perhaps more interesting than the story itself. Billed as a day in the life of the Russian people, Vertov spent several years filming, then essentially just retired to an editing bay where he supposedly threw every technique he had at the print, just to see what would happen. What we have is a film without a story or titles that shows the possiblities of the cinematic artform. And while we may not be all that stunned, back in 1929 it was a pretty big deal.
For portions of the film, it really just feels like we're watching a kid run around with his new camera, filming everything that catches his eyes, and in a lot of ways we are. The filmmaker that Vertov is filming is looking for images of everyday Russia, which pretty much requires running around and filming everything of interest, but Vertov is able to expand that to include other aspects of the filmmaking process, such as the editor we watch splice together footage and the audience assembled to view the final product. These images of everyday life are often intercut with shots of working machinery. Is Vertov commenting, as some have suggested, on the state of affairs in newly-socialist Russia, or does the juxtaposition just look cool? It's hard to tell, really, in the absence of a plot. When Vertov places the word "experiment" in the opening credits, he really opens up a great deal of speculation to the meaning of his images. He could be trying to tell us something, but he's already said he's playing with the art form, so how much value are we to put into the significance of a scene?
The editing is the real draw here. Several of the techniques editor Yelizaveta Svilova pioneered are decades ahead of their time, and most of them still aren't used as effectively as she did on the first try. To say the editing here is influential to visual artists everywhere is a gross misunderstatement. The number of effects is at times staggering.
To me at least, it's interesting to watch the people who know they're being filmed, as there's a real childlike giddiness inherent in their actions. Think back to the first time you saw yourself in a home movie and how absolutely cool it felt to be on TV, even if it was just being seen by the people in the living room with you. Now imagine how cool it would have been had you never seen a video camera before and the invention of the technology had been recent enough that no one you know had ever been on camera before. That will give you an idea of just how novel a concept it was for these average people to be in this movie, and try as they might to re-enact their "normal" activities, nothing can hide just how excited they are to even be there. It's not often you see people so happy.
25 November 2005
Buy from Amazon.com
starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Michael V. Gazzo, and Lee Strasberg
written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by Puzo
directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
R, 200 min, 1974, USA
As our story continues, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family to Nevada, where he attempts to expand into Las Vegas, Cuba, and beyond. He is engaged in a battle of wills with both investor Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and the U.S. Senate, which is conducting investigations into organized crime. In a series of flashbacks, we learn how a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro), after escaping the Sicilian Don who killed his family, becomes the feared man who would eventually carry judges and politicians in his pocket like loose change.
At first glance, it was certainly an unexpected decision to tell this story in segments, but in retrospect it was clearly the correct choice. Normally in a sequel like this, we would continue in a linear manner, following Michael as he expands his empire and fights his personal demons, and there's definitely enough material there to warrant an entire film, but by showing the backstory of Vito Coppola manages to add a new dimension to the entire story. What he's doing is ignoring the traditional means of doing a sequel and telling the saga as one whole story, and for that the Vito backstory is a vital part of the equation. In addition, the inclusion of Vito to Part two sets up a nice contrast that reminds us how far this family has come, and just how far Michael has strayed from his intended path. It is a bold choice for Coppola, but one that pays off large dividends.
Part of what separates The Godfather from your standard mafia films is that at it's core, this is not really a film about gangsters, but rather a character drama about people who just happen to be in the mafia. It's no surprise that these films dominated the acting categories at the Oscars, as these are actor's films, designed to showcase their unique abilities. No where is this more apparent than in the relationship between Micheal and Fredo (John Cazale). By Part Two, Michael has become an introspective, calculating man, content gather information through observation and rarely exposing any of his intentions unless necessary. As the film progresses, we see less and less compassion behind those eyes, and by the end it's clear we're looking at a man almost completely dead inside. By contrast, Fredo is a man who lives with his heart on his sleeve. He has never been given the respect he feels he deserves and strives to obtain it through a sort of friendship. He is the guy who shows people a good time, as if through that he can somehow create an identity for himself. But this overwhelming desire to be loved proves to be his downfall, as stronger, more intelligent men have no trouble exploiting it for their own purposes. Fredo is tricked into betraying his younger brother and it leads to him groveling for compassion while still trying to establish his worth. It's an amazing performance by Cazale, one of our more tragic actors. This is a man who made only five feature films before dying of cancer, and all five of them were nominated for Best Picture. Sadly, he was never recognized in his lifetime.
In the flashbacks, Robert DeNiro is given the job of playing Brando's Vito as a young man. Naturally, the Method actor spent time in Sicily preparing for the role, and what he presents is a compassionate man with a cunning and forceful demeanor. He is the type of man who can get you to do what you never thought you would, simply by looking at you. I imagine he had that rare ability to look right through you, as if he were examining your soul. He has a force of will that demands your respect. DeNiro plays it nearly to perfection, even down to the Italian he must speak for the entire film, and he is somehow able to show us the evolution of his character, from an average citizen to the beginning stages of underworld boss.
Every year, as part of my Thanksgiving tradition, I take the time to watch The Godfather trilogy (well, at very least the first two) and every year I notice more and learn more about what a great film entails. This is a series that resonates from beginning to end because it is masterfully directed, shot, edited, designed, and written, but more importantly because it contains some of the most memorable performances in the history of cinema. It is a Thankgiving feast for any fan of the artistry of film and a must-see for anyone anywhere with even a passing interest in storytelling in any form.
 Naturally, he would re-edit the first 2 films to create one long, linear TV miniseries.
 Part One had Brando win Best Actor and claimed three nominations for Supporting Actor (James Caan, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall). In Part Two DeNiro won Best Supporting Actor, Pacino was nominated for Best Actor, and the film had three more supporting nominations (Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire).
 They were: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978).
Buy from Amazon.com
starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Richard S. Castellano, Talia Shire, and John Cazale
written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by Puzo
directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
R, 175 min, 1972, USA
The great Shakespearian epic of our time, The Godfather series is perhaps the grandest accomplishment in the history of American cinema. It made stars of several actors and director Francis Ford Coppola, was nominated for a total of 29 Academy Awards, won Best Picture twice, and has inspired numerous entries in the popular lexicon. Part one tells the story of how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a civilian war hero, is trust into the family business he said he'd never join and ascends to the throne of the empire.
In retrospect it's hard to imagine, but Paramount was not in favor of Coppola's cast choices for any of the major roles. Coppola set his sights on Brando and Pacino, in particular, early in the process and would not budge as the studio brought in essentially every "name" actor in the greater Los Angeles area to read for the parts. The concern was that Brando was too far gone as an actor and that Pacino had no name recognition, but as usually happens in these scenarios, the director was right and both actors turned in fantastic performances. Brando's Vito Corleone would earn him a Best Actor Oscar, as well as inspire a littany of impressions with his raspy delivery. Al Pacino has the most difficult role in the film, as he must portray a transformation from a character with a basic sense of purity to a calculating monster who would have his godson's father murdered on the day of the christening. We see the first steps of this evolution when Michael visits his father in the hospital only to find the guards have been ordered to leave. He springs to action, moving his father and standing up to the corrupt police chief who tries to arrest him. The certainty of his actions speaks volumes about his nature, much more than the speeches he uses to convince himself he's not like his father. He cannot deny that this is part of who he is, it's too deeply ingrained to ignore, and from that moment on he is fully involved. In a memorable scene that may just be the finest moment of Pacino's career, he guns down the police captain and the man who tried to kill his father in a restaurant. Although he may spend the rest of the films striving to regain his legitimacy, his actions over the course of those two days seals his fate.
Francis Ford Coppola is a man heavily steeped in the importance of family and the Italian way of life, and he uses those convictions to really give the film the proper dynamic. He understands how these large families operate, how the various relationships play off each other, and he employs his experiences to add a authentic feel to the proceedings. It's the small things, like adding wine to the pasta recipe, or the importance of operation a Sicilian courtship through the extended family, that sells large chunks of the film. The visual flair of the film is further defined by cinematographer Gordon Willis. The shots he composes are truly a thing of beauty. His is a name too often forgotten when discussing the great film artists.
It has been said that The Godfather has something for everyone. Part soap opera, part revenge flick, part character study, this film runs the gamut of human experiences and emotions. It is worthy of inclusion in any list of the all-time greats.
 Including Robert DeNiro, who read for multiple parts and would later play the young Vito in The Godfather: Part II
 It was his second win against 8 nominations (the last coming in 1989 for A Dry White Season). He famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony in his place to protest discrimination against Native Americans. Ironically, Littlefeather was just an actor.
23 November 2005
starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Leopoldine Konstantin
written by: Ben Hecht, from the story by John Taintor Foote
directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
NR, 101 min, 1946, USA
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a traitor, is approached by U.S. agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to spy on her father's old friends--a group of Nazi's holed up in South America. By exploiting the affections of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), she's able to infiltrate the group effectively, but when she gets in too deep, her life becomes endangered.
Alfred Hitchcock, that master of suspense, here focuses on inanimate objects to ratchet up the tension. He zooms the camera in to focus on a wine bottle, a missing key, and in one important sequence, a slowly disappearing supply of champagne, using his patented technique of occasionally giving the audience more information than he gives the characters. Take for example, the key. Alicia has lifted the key from her new husband Alex's key chain and deftly passed it to Devlin during a party. The key is then used to gain entrance to a wine cellar, where Devlin discovers Sebastian's mystery. Unknown to Alicia, Sebastian discovers the key is missing and calmly says nothing, allowing instead the scenario to play itself out. After Alicia is asleep he retires for the night, placing his key chain where he does every night and Hitchcock makes sure we see the key's absense. Early the next morning, before she wakes up, he rushes to the chain, where the key has been replaced, revealing Alicia's deception. Does he confront her? No, rather he plots how to keep this information secret from his colleagues, as it will surely mean his death. Alicia is poisoned to keep her quiet, and it's only a slight tell of the eyes by which she discovers it. But throughout her posioning, Hitchcock continually focuses on the ominous sight of an ornate cup of coffee. Somehow he manages to make the most innocent objects the most frightening thing on the screen. Make no mistake, this is the stuff of genius.
Hitchcock famously said that "Actors are cattle", but he continually got great performances out of them. Ingrid Bergman is brilliant in a layered role of a woman who falls in love with one man, but is forced to seduce and marry another. This is heavy stuff for the 1940's--there's a limit on the length of kisses and a married couple sleeps in separate beds, after all--but she brings a sense of luminence to a somewhat socially unacceptable role. Part of what sells the choices she must make is an early exchange where Cary Grant claims not to love her, even though we all know he's lying and she probably would too, if she took a step back. He knows that in order for her to be able to do the job she must do, she cannot go into it half-way. He has made his protest (as any lover would do) to his superiors and has defended her honor, but he makes no mention of this to her. She naturally assumes he has been using her and is able to muster the ability to marry Sebastian for the sake of the job. Overall, it's a difficult role that requires her to test the full range of her abilities, but Bergman nails every note.
Likewise, Claude Rains turns in one of the best performances of his career. Watch his final scene on the steps as he takes his character all the way from indignation to desperation in the space of just a few seconds. It's a stunning bit of nuanced acting. In fact, there isn't a sub-par performance in the entire film. Not bad for a bunch of cattle.
 It's easy to see, between this and Casablanca, why even Woody Guthrie was in love with Bergman.
 In a way she does this as a "screw you" to Devlin.
22 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner
written by: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, from the novel by Lehman
directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
NR, 96 min, 1957, USA
All-powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has blacklisted press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) until he can fulfill a promise to break up the impending nuptuals of his sister (Susan Harrison) to guitar player Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Falco devises a plan, but Hunsecker's protective nature goes too far and he discovers too late that not everything can be manipulated like the lives of the people in his column.
Sweet Smell of Success was roundly panned upon its release in 1957, and it's box office failure ensured that director Alexander Mackendrick's first big American film would essentially be his last. Really it's a shame, because Sweet Smell of Success is the sort of taut battle of wills we don't see all that often from Hollywood. Both Lancaster and Curtis play men lacking a moral compass--completely unsympathetic people--which probably goes a long way toward explaining the tepid box office. American audience don't usually react all that well to films where all the main characters are sleazy, manipulative creeps, so the studio couldn't exactly have been expecting lines around the corner, but this is exactly the type of film critics would normally champion. Methinks perhaps it was a victim of bad timing. The two big films of 1957 were 12 Angry Men, a moral tale of standing for your convictions, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, a big war movie. It could be that Sweet Smell of Success was just a couple of years too early for critical acclaim.
And critical acclaim is precisely what this deserves. Set in the New York theatre district, it follows Tony Curtis (in a great performance) as he plays the angles, desperately trying to get his clients mentioned in Burt Lancaster's column. But Lancaster has a great deal of leverage over Curtis. He knows that Curtis relies on his column to live; without his gratis, Curtis is as good as dead. So he uses that leverage to force Curtis to do things against his will, like get a guitar player to stay away from his sister. Curtis views Lancaster as a friend, but there's really no give and take to the relationship. It's one man grovelling for a crumb and another making him dance for it. Pretty much Lancaster operates his column with the all-encompassing power of a mafia boss, moving people around like pawns with little to no consideration for their well-being. Even his concern for his sister has selfish motivations.
Mackendrick wisely made the simple but effective choice to give Lancaster a pair of glasses that cast a shadow over his eyes, so even if his face is fully lit, we never see his eyes. Whenever we see him, it's clear to us that he's not to be trusted, but what choice do the other characters have? He has the power to crush them with a single phone call. He is king of a theatre underworld brought to life with expert camera work and cinematography. You feel as if you've walked these streets a hundred times and can't get rid of the smell.
 He made a name for himself with the British comedies Whiskey Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). He made a couple of films after this one, but nothing of any real substance. It's possible we lost one of our great filmmakers.
20 November 2005
starring: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, and Alec Guinness
written by: Robert Hamer & John Dighton, from the novel by Roy Horniman
directed by: Robert Hamer
NR, 106 min, 1949, United Kingdom
In an act of revenge against the family that disowned his mother, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) conspires to eliminate the twelve members of the D'Ascoyn clan that stand between him and Dukedom. But as he approaches his goal, a jealous lover frames him for the murder of her husband--the one crime he didn't commit.
British comedian Eddie Izzard has a bit about his country's films that revolves around the common trait of the films being, well, a bit dry. This is no exception. Mazzini manages to murder six people in cold blood, seduce a married woman, shoot the current Duke in the face, come to blows with his lover's drunk husband, blow up a shed, and shoot down a hot air balloon--all without providing the audience with the least bit of entertainment. Is it really possible to watch a man go on an elaborate killing spree and be bored to death? Yes. Oh, but Mazzini is convicted of killing a man who committed suicide. What delicious irony! Bollocks.
A film is in trouble when it relies on irony as a means of resolution. It's like the comedian who relies on puns. Sure it works a couple of times, and you may get a few laughs out of it, but in the end it grows quickly tiresome and the audience moves on. He's convicted of a murder he didn't commit, but can it really be that hard to get yourself acquited of something like that? There's no evidence against him to speak of, just the testimony of a jealous lover and a vague sense of impropriety, but that's hardly sufficent to hang a Duke. At least Price does us the honour of a proper acting performance.
It pales, though, in comparison to the job by Alec Guinness, who plays the entire D'Ascoyn family, giving them all unique looks and mannerisms. He sets the standard for later turns by Peter Sellers and Mike Myers, and is clearly the high point of the whole production. In fact, it seems as if the film exists solely to allow Guinness to play all these different parts, and if that's the case, it's odd that he isn't in the film more. Most of his scenes are rather short. If you combine all his roles he probably isn't in the film as much as Price, despite being the best thing on screen.
 It should be noted that this type of comedy was popular in Britain in the forties and fifties. It is meant to be droll and civilized and perfectly mannered. It does this well, but it still does not make the film itself enjoyable. It is, perhaps, a victim of the passage of time.
 The comedian, not the serial killer.
18 November 2005
starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Ward Bond
written by: Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan Le May
directed by: John Ford
NR, 119 min, 1956, USA
When a Comanche war party murders a frontier family and takes the two young daughters captive, it's up to their uncle Ethan (John Wayne) and adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to track the Indians, rescue the girls, and exact their revenge. The oldest girl is killed early in the hunt, but when they find the youngest five years later, will it be too late? Will she be too much a Comanche or does she remember who she really is?
The Searchers, a great film about a quest, is actually about two quests. Martin's intent is to track the tribe and rescue his sister Debbie (Natalie Wood). After the first flush of the chase is over, John Wayne, on the other hand, wants to put a bullet in her head. His hatred for the Comanche way of life is so deep, so ingrained, that for her to live that long with them means she isn't even a human being anymore. She's become a savage, and killing her would then become the humane thing for him to do. No kin of his is going through life as a savage, not if he can help it. There's a certain enigma about Wayne's character. He seems to know more than anyone else in the film about the Comanche, which would lead you to think he's your typical Western hero who occasionally lives amoung them, but he would do anything in his power to kill every one of them, if given the opportunity. When he and Martin hunt buffalo, he massacres several under the assumption that it'll give the Comanche a few less to hunt. This is not a good man John Ford has given us as our hero, yet we are forced to admire him, despite what we may think of his politics. So what does it say about us that we so adore this cutthroat, racist bastard? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's hard not to be on the side of John Wayne. But I do know that the final scenes, when he chases Debbie over a hill and instead of killing her, scoops her up in his arms and carries her home, gave me a great sense of redemption. In the end, he really is a compassionate soul.
A lot of the credit for crafting this character that subverts the persona of John Wayne has to go to director John Ford. Wayne isn't really a very good actor, but he is a great movie star. He's the type of guy you can build a film around, knowing that at the center will be John Wayne playing, well, John Wayne. There isn't a lot of range to the John Wayne character, but Ford is able to create a different dimension for this character by the choices he makes around him. The range here exists in the circumstances surrounding the performance. The choice of angles, lenses, and composition does a lot of the acting for him. That isn't to say he's a rock, or that the performance is bad, per se. On the contrary, it's probably one of his best performances. It's just that Ford makes it even better.
John Ford was one of our great directors. Working in a genre that wasn't well-respected, he managed to win four Oscars for direction, and another two for his WWII documentary work. He's probably best known for his magnificent uses of landscape, which can bring to mind long, static shots of mountains where very little happens for a long time, but Ford's visual style was much more vibrant and alive than I think we sometimes remember. He composes beautiful landscape shots, but he also knows when to cut to the closeup of John Wayne, and where to put the camera to achieve maximum effect. There perhaps isn't a wasted shot in this film, and for a movie where two guys track Indians for five years, that's an accomplishment.
 The film leaves a couple of hints that perhaps John Wayne slept with his brother's wife and fathered two children. So she's either his niece or his daughter, depending on who you believe.
 He is the prototype for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
 This, somehow, wasn't one of them. He won for The Quiet Man (1952), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and The Informer (1935).
17 November 2005
starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, and Eugene Pallette
written by: Preston Sturges and Monckton Hoffe
directed by: Preston Sturges
NR, 97 min, 1941, USA
Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike's Ale fortune ("the Ale that won for Yale."), has absolutely zero interest in brewing ale or beer or anything in between. In fact, he's an ophiologist returning from a year in the Amazon studying snakes because, well, that's what an ophiologist does. On the voyage from South America he meets Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), who aren't so much rich socialites as they are con men and gamblers. In the midst of their scam, Jean falls in love with him, but after he proposes marriage his bodyguard discovers her identity and the engagement is off. Because revenge is sweet, she poses as an English lady and tricks him into falling in love with her all over again.
You wouldn't expect a script written by Preston Sturges while he waited for the finalization of his third divorce to have a positive or healthy view of love and marriage, and The Lady Eve doesn't disappoint. Charles Pike is no great romantic; he's no great anything, really. It's entirely possible he's good with snakes, but other than that, there's no real evidence that he's got a clue. He proposes to Jean on two different occasions and uses the exact same wording each time, even though he thinks he's proposing to different girls. He does bad card tricks, is an awful poker player, and views life as a dim-witted holier-than-thou fool. Accordingly, Fonda plays him as a bit of a bumbling idiot of the worst kind: he thinks himself intelligent and sophisticated, despite the fact that it takes him three changes of clothes just to get through a simple dinner. On the other hand, Jean is a street-wise hustler. In a clever scene, she deals her father a cold deck while giving Charles four Queens and a nine. Her father then switches in four Kings, she switches it back on him, he switches in four Aces from his other pocket, and she finally trumps him by "accidentally" exposing the Ace she's conveniently kept on the top of the deck. Her father must then fold and claim he was bluffing. Charles, though, has no clue any of this is going on, he's so focused on his cards. That he doesn't realize they're con artists is odd, that he falls in love with her in the course of maybe two days is even odder. And when he discovers the truth, he doesn't give her an opportunity to explain what she was willing to give up for him. What sort of person proposes to someone he just met then discards her at the slightest bit of bad news? Can that be love?
Later, as an English Lady who looks suspiciously like a certain con artist, she marries him for revenge, then avoids sleeping with him on the wedding night by giving him her full "history of lovers". Suffice to say it's a lot for a upper-class lady of her standing. Charles is horrified, gets off the train, and refuses to speak to her, even to arrange a lawyer-free divorce. A man this stupid deserves to get conned, but somehow he ends up ahead. If he really were the card player he thinks himself to be, you'd do everything you could to play with him, because someone this delusional is just giving money away left and right. Even if he beats you, he'll feel bad and try to give it back.
 Back then it was commonplace for alcoholic beverages to win sporting events. In fact, Sam Adams Summer Ale won a national championship for Harvard.
 She's decided not to hustle the man she loves, which is a good thing to look for in a potential wife. He doesn't seem to realize the value of this virtue, hence the revenge later in the film.
15 November 2005
14 November 2005
starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains
written by: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
directed by: Michael Curtiz
NR, 102 min, 1942, USA
Saloon keeper Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical man of the world who sticks his neck out for no man. He does not drink with his customers, he doesn't even talk to them any more than he has to, and has a few functional relationships with people around him, but they're merely matters of convenience rather than actual friendships. His only allegiance is to himself and his piano player Sam. This is a wise foreign policy, as there is a war ravaging Europe and the Germans are threatening to extend it to Africa, but all that changes when freedom fighters Victor Laslo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walk into his saloon. Rick and Ilsa were lovers in a past life and in attempting to get Rick's help in securing their escape to America, they fall in love all over again. Rick is forced to get involved despite himself.
Casablanca is a rare example of a studio film being better because of the studio. If you'd been paying attention to the news around the film prior to its release in 1942, there's very little that would have given you much confidence. The original play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's", hadn't been produced when Warner Brothers bought it. One version of the script, by the Epstein twins, was finished days before they started filming, and another version, by Howard Koch, wasn't finished until two weeks after they started filming. These two scripts were cobbled together on the fly, with lines reportedly being added by other various people. Due to various politics, they had some trouble assembling the cast they originally wanted. The whole thing had the look of a train wreck, the sort of thing you'd avoid until some good reviews started coming in. And somehow, to the amazement of pretty much everyone, it ended up being one of the greatest, most beloved films ever made. Go figure.
There are, in my humble opinion, two major reasons for this. The first is that Humphrey Bogart's Rick is perhaps the coolest main character to ever exist on film. Mostly wearing a white tuxedo with a cigarette and alcohol within reach, he is impressed by no one. A important man attempts to enter the saloon's back-room casino, but is denied by Rick. When he protests with the line "What? Do you know who I am?", Rick calmly replies "I do. You're lucky the bar's open to you." He is completely unflappable, until he sees Ilsa. You see, at heart he is really a "rank sentimentalist". The wall he has put up is simply a defense mechanism to deal with a broken heart. So he is at the same time, as Captain Renault put it, "the kind of man that... well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.", and he is a vulnerable drunkard who's just as human as the rest of us. He is our fragile insecurities hidden by the person we all wish we were. The second reason is that for all the various chaos involved in writing the screenplay, it happens to be a nearly flawless one. Maybe they got lucky, but there isn't a bad (or even slightly awkward) line in the entire film. Every word feels like the perfect thing you wish you would have said. Perhaps that makes the whole thing unrealistic, but if you're going to be that sort of critic, you'll live a miserable life.
Full disclosure time: this has been one of my favorite films for a long time, so I could easily go on and on extoling it's virtues, but I'll resist that urge. To know Casablanca is to love it completely. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
 Philip G. Epstein was actually the grandfather of former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who famously assembled the team that won the 2004 World Series and broke the curse of the Bambino. My good friend Nate Wilks met him in Augusta, Georgia before he got promoted to GM and relayed this bit of information to me. This immediately elevated my trust in his overall worth as a human being.
 Rumors that Ronald Regan was being considered for Rick were not true.
10 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge
written by: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, from Harbou's novel
directed by: Fritz Lang
NR, 153 min, 1927, Germany
The city of Metropolis is divided into the brain and the hands. While the city's elite sit in the lap of luxury, the workers tend to the machinery for ten hours before retreating to their underground city "where they belong". The one thing that keeps them from revolting is the promise of a coming "mediator", a Messianic figure who will bring the hands and the brain together. The prophetic woman (Brigitte Helm) behind the legend believes the mediator to be Freder Frederson (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city's leader, who thanks to a deft switch with one of the workers, stumbles upon the meeting in the catacombs. Meanwhile, his father (Alfred Abel) is in cahoots with a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a life-like Machine Man to undermine the woman's message. The Machine manages to incite a riot, which endangers the worker's children. And who is there to save the day? Look up there! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...uh, Freder Frederson.
When we finally get the hang of this time-travel thing, one of the first orders of business should be to go to 1927 Germany and grab a completed print of Metropolis. Due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, over a quarter of the film is lost and gone forever. So instead of Fritz Lang's orginal vision, what we're left with is most of it and title cards that explain what we're missing. It's a damn shame too, because we seem to be missing a lot of good stuff, including an entire trip to the entertainment district by the worker who's switched places with Freder. There aren't many films that could survive the loss of that much footage and still be a viable experience, it's just too much to overcome, but Metropolis manages somehow. As it now stands, the film is nothing short of amazing and we can only imagine how much better it was in its entirety. Really, with the amount of space here we can only scratch the surface. Lang's Metropolis is thrilling in every sense of the word. This is the standard on which all science fiction should be judged, and serves as the template for many a sci-fi worldview.
Apparently, Adolf Hitler considered this his favorite film, and while we would normally discard such information, I think it's worth exploring for a minute. In the early scenes we see the workers shuffling to and from work en masse like comatose zombies. For a while I thought they actually had undergone some sort of lobotomy, but they've just been so marginalized by the city's leaders that this appears to be the most effective way to get through the day. There's a certain sense of fear about them. Only when the Machine starts to appeal to their sense of justice do they come alive, becoming a raving mob that has little regard for the consequences of their actions. Is that drastic effect on a large group of people what appealed to Hitler so much? Maybe, although the Machine does get hers in the end. Is it the themes of a drastic class structure? Or is it simply the erotic dancer? Hard to say, really.
Brigitte Helm has the difficult dual role of Maria, the prophetic woman, and her Machine double. Essentially, she has to play polar opposites, as Maria is a paradigm of virtue, almost a Mother Theresa character, and the Machine is a wild, wicked troublemaker who spends her spare time seducing the men of Metropolis as an erotic dancer. It's a gutsy performance all-around and she's clearly having a lot of fun with it. Then again, how could you not with a role like that?
08 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, and Danièle Girard
written by: Jean-Luc Godard, from the novel by Dolores Hitchens
directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
NR, 97 min, 1964, France
Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part is the story of how three vapid youths can conspire to pull off a grand robbery without having even the slightest clue what they're doing and fail miserably while still considering the caper a success. Odile (Anna Karina) is presumably dating Franz (Sami Frey), a boy from her English class, but while there falls in love with his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur). Arthur and Franz are thieves, or they're trying to be thieves, and somehow learn that Odile lives in a house that contains a large sum of money. She becomes their accomplice and the heist is on.
Thanks to Godard's unique brand of genius, this film is at the same time much better than it has any right to be and more puzzling than it should be. Apparently, he doesn't find it necessary to include a scene where the idea of the robbery is hatched, instead jumping us from Arthur and Odile's meeting to a scene where they discuss where the money is. They also don't bother to really plan for the heist beyond the point of figuring out what day they'll do it, and Arthur's family members are putting some sort of pressure on him to do this quickly that isn't really explained. On the other side, Godard shows a penchant for including lengthy scenes that don't advance the plot at all. They decide to have an actual minute of silence where all the audio is dropped from the scene, just to see how long it really is, and then end the minute with a long dance scene. To a casual observer, this seems pointless, and they may be right. But when you couple this with how inept the robbery goes (no one bothers to make sure the door is unlocked before they get there and they leave a ladder propped up against the side of the building), it becomes apparent that what Godard is doing is perhaps showing us just how irresponsible they are and how arbitrary this robbery is. These aren't professional thieves with fancy gadgets and blueprints and experience. These are three bored kids who think it would be fun to steal some money. They don't know what the hell they're doing. And how do we know this? Well, they spend the time they should spend doing basic things like getting the actual layout of the house by dancing. It feels like a poor choice by Godard, but it's really just a poor choice by his characters and his narrator interrupts the dance to remind us that they're thinking of such important topics as how their breasts look in a sweater.
The answer, of course, is just fine. Anna Karina is stunningly gorgeous and, more importantly, a fine actress. The scene in the English class when she's flirting with Arthur could teach even the most inept woman how to seduce a man using only her eyes. It's really quite distracting. She gives the best performance of the trio, as she's being torn in various directions, but the two male leads do solid jobs as well.
In the end, the heist goes horribly wrong, but thankfully the film does not. Godard sees to it that every scene is at very least compelling, even if it doesn't seem to be advancing the plot all that much. To put it differently, there are times when it seems the film is more cool than good, but it's influence is undeniable. Several shots (a couple of scenes even) have been stolen by lesser directors, and if you look closely, you can just make out Quentin Tarantino's next ground-breaking movie. All you have to do is pretend Anna Karina is Uma Thurman.
 His father, Pierre Brasseur, famously played Frédérick Lemaître in Les Enfants du Paradis. I somehow watched these films back-to-back without realizing this until now.
 It is also possible that I missed it. Although, it would have happened rather quickly for that to be the case.
06 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, Pierre Brasseur, and Marcel Herrand
written by: Jacques Prévert
directed by: Marcel Carné
NR, 190 min, 1945, France
Filmed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of WWII, Les Enfants du Paradis is an epic tale of tragedy where it is not enough to love and be loved in return. The story revolves around the theatre scene of 1830's Paris. Baptiste (Jean Louis Barrault) is an exceptional mime who falls in love with Garance (Arletty), but in a moment of timidity when he does not allow his love to flourish he misses his opportunity and she ends up with aspiring actor Frederick instead. However, when she's fingered as an accomplice to attempted murder, she seeks refuge with a wealthy admirer. Years later she returns to Paris to find that Baptiste and Frederick have become the pillars of the theatre and that her feelings for Baptiste have only grown stronger with time, but his wife is able to run interference and they are kept apart.
While Les Enfants du Paradis is commonly hailed as the greatest achievement in the history of French cinema, the argument has been made that this is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. If that is wrong, it is not wrong by much. This is a big-budget studio movie that feels like a small, personal drama. A large portion of the French Resistance worked as crew members to keep them out of concentration camps, and the entire production took over three years to complete. Under those conditions, it's amazing the film was even made at all. Somehow, they managed to come up with one of the best things you'll ever see on film.
Simply stated, this is a tragic tale of love lost. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert infuses the film with a sense of poetic beauty that informs every bit of the production. Somehow he manages to make even a coarse bit of dialogue feel sublime. There are several extended mime performances that would stand alone outside the framework of the film as a whole, but add a fascinating dimension to the proceedings. Director Marcel Carné films on numerous sets because, well, that's what he had to work with. But in a film that revolves around the world of the theatre, it works to the film's advantage. Just as in the theatre nothing is truly as it seems, so it is in the film. All of the characters, for that matter, seem to have a different idea as to their standing in the world at large. At least four primary characters are in love with Garance, all of them thinking at various points that their love is reciprocated, so when she is revealed to be kissing Baptiste on the balcony, Frederick comments that, "Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to no one." And when Baptiste's wife discovers the affair, Garance is gone. He chases her into the street, brushing past his son as if he weren't there, but is unable to navigate through the carnival crowd full of people dressed as his famous mime. He's left struggling against the crowd, desperate and forlorn.
 I think they used that line in Moulin Rouge! (2001) as well.
05 November 2005
starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, and Helen Broderick
written by: Erwin S. Gelsey, Howard Lindsay, and Allan Scott
directed by: George Stevens
NR, 103 min, 1936, USA
"Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding because he believes his trousers to be out of fashion, and is required to earn $25,000 in New York City before the girl's father will allow the marriage to take place, only Lucky doesn't earn money as much as he wins it. By chance he runs into Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor who wants nothing to do with him until she finds out that against all odds Lucky is a fantastic dancer. Eventually they fall in love and she gets engaged to a band leader, but the marriage is averted when he falls for the same trouser con.
The main draw for Swing Time, other than the roulette games, is the dancing chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They don't disappoint. Director George Stevens frames the sequences in a continual long shot, which was probably standard at the time, but in retrospect seems like a novel approach. It allows us to watch the artistry of the dance without wondering if they've used a body double for the shots of the feet or employed other such tricks of the editing booth. It's interesting to note that we don't see Astaire and Rogers fall in love in a typical way, rather they fall for each other on the dance floor. Most of the honest communication happens while they dance, for that matter. There are times it seems they're making love simply by tapping their feet. It's a beautiful thing to watch.
For a musical, Swing Time doesn't contribute a whole lot to the American songbook. Only one song, "The Way You Look Tonight", has had any lasting appeal, and you could make the argument that Frank Sinatra's recording had a great deal to do with that. The song runs throughout the film in a recurring motif, often creating a segue between a lesser song and the subsequent dialogue and reminding us just how inferior the song we just heard really was.
Fred Astaire has a solo dance number often cited for it's inventiveness, "Bojangles of Harlem", a tribute to several blackface performers of the time. While a rather famous scene that involves him dancing in front of a rear projection of three large shadowed figures that mimic most of his moves, the scene is, at the very least, an odd departure from the rest of the film. What purpose does the blackface number serve other than the continuation of a vicious stereotype? None whatsover. It does not advance the plot or further develop a character one iota. It is the worst kind of racism, for it is completely unnecessary. We are supposed to give this sort of thing a free pass, after all it was 1936 and hindsight is 20/20, and if it served any purpose in the film we surely would. But to include this simply for the sake of inclusion reeks of irresponsibility on the part of the filmmakers. We expect better and humanity deserves better, even if it was 1936.
 We have absolutely no problem, for example, with the likeminded portrayal of the bandleader's butler. He, at least, is a character with lines who advances the plot.
04 November 2005
starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, and Margaret Wycherly
written by: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from the story by Virginia Kellogg
directed by: Raoul Walsh
NR, 114 min, 1949, USA
Mama's Boy Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a crime boss with deep psychological issues and the feds on his tail for a train robbery. To give himself an alibi, he confesses to a lesser crime a couple of states away and is perfectly willing to serve the shorter sentence. Naturally, the authorities find this suspect, so they insert undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) as his cellmate. Fallon is able to get close enough to Jarrett to be included in the gang's next venture, and Jarrett goes about getting revenge for his mother's death.
James Cagney, one of the great screen legends, virtually invented the tough-guy role that made him famous and would heavily influence an entire generation of actors. In White Heat, he turns in perhaps his best performance, and for good reason, as the character gives him a lot to work with. If you wanted to show the effects of the Oedipal Complex, Cody Jarrett would be a good place to start. Nothing in the world is more important to him than his mother--not his wife, his gang, his reputation, or his upcoming crime spree. She is the center of his world, a willing cohort to his crimes (she's even a key part of the gang's braintrust), and proof that perhaps you're never to old to have your mother looking out for you. So when she's killed looking after his interests while he's in jail, he's understandably upset. He goes ballistic in the mess hall, screaming and knocking things over, even taking out several guards, before being subdued in a straightjacket. Cagney improvised the scene, so the surpise of his fellow inmates has a lot of truth to it, and it shows that profound sense of anguish when you can do nothing but scream and look for something to hit while you're emotions are litterally pulling your body in every direction simultaneously. To say it's a commanding performance is putting it lightly. This is James Cagney's world and the film simply exists within it. Nothing in the plot is as important as fulfilling his mother's wish to make it "to the top of the world."
The plot's not bad, though, even if it is a little simplistic at times. But what it lacks in simplicity, it makes up for in details. There's several small touches that give the proceedings a feeling of authenticity: a note left on a bathroom mirror, an inmate who reads lips, a three-car system for following a suspect, a bit of compassion that arouses suspicion, a gas truck serving as a Trojan horse. It may not be a labrynth of a film, but it feels real, and ultimately that's more important.
03 November 2005
buy from Amazon.com
starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, and Mary Astor
written by: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
directed by: William Wyler
NR, 101 min, 1936, USA
Automobile tycoon Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) has sold his business and is taking his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on a second honeymoon around Europe to fully enjoy life for the first time after a lifetime of hard work. But while in Europe, Fran gets easily caught up in the glitz and glamour of the socialite life and has an affair. Sam is willing to take her back, but a second affair leads Fran to file for divorce, and Sam is left to travel aimlessly around Europe until the divorce is final.
Dodsworth is the type of film you rarely see: a drama about adults and geared toward adults that doesn't pander to a lowest common denominator or insult the intelligence of its audience. It does not feel the need to gloss over the hard truths of the subject matter, but tells us the story straight, without sentiment. In a lot of ways it's similar to Closer (2004) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973) in it's handling of sensitive issues such as estrangement and reconcilliation. It perhaps isn't the most original of stories, and for that we can blame humanity more than a group of filmmakers. Happily married people get divorced all the time. But sometimes they are better off for it.
It's telling that near the end of the film, when Ruth realizes her error and wants to give up the divorce claim, we want Sam to run as far away from her as he can. I don't know if it's more important that we want this to happen or that the film wants this to happen, as I can't imagine this was a popular sentiment in 1936. We all know the template: spouse is unfaithful, realizes error, begs forgiveness, other spouse forgives with open arms, all is forgotten (or at least ignored). It's a bit surprising, though, when a film deviates from this standard, especially when it sets up the happy ending and fails to deliver. Here we're thankful for that failure. We've seen how Ruth has treated Sam, how she's walked all over him with little regard for his feelings, and we've seen how Sam has reacted, largely allowing her to do so. He understands that his wife is sowing some wild oats, and is waiting for her on the other side, but when she goes too far, he takes measures to end the affair. He confronts her and her lover in a hotel room with fire in his eyes. If this were a mob movie, the lover would be dead. But Sam is really little more than a loving husband put through the wringer by the woman he loves, and it gives Walter Huston the opportunity to show the full range of his acting ability. He layers his performance with levels of hurt and betrayal over an unwaivering love. Most actors would kill to have this film in their resume.
William Wyler does a fine job directing, as he's mostly directing actors here, but along with cinematographer Rudolph Maté does an exceptional job of telling the story visually, particularly in a couple of key scenes. The shots are the type that sneak up on you, their impact registers slowly, which is exactly the type of thing Hollywood used to do better than anyone. These days it registers as a minor shock when they do it at all.
01 November 2005
starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, and Elsa Lanchester
written by: William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
directed by: James Whale
NR, 75 min, 1935, USA
The sequel to 1931's Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein is the story of how the Monster attempts to connect with society and ultimately find love. It celebrates a grand tradition of the Monster that is feared by people because he's different, a tradition that continued through Son of Frankenstein (1939), Young Frankenstein (1974), and the epic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Our story so far: Dr. Frankenstein, with the help of his assistant Igor, has cobbled together a monster out of various body parts taken from dead people. Thanks to a bit of electricity, he lives, only he doesn't exactly fit in, and therefore ends up going on a rampage. This, of course, does little to endear him to the townsfolk, who do their best to burn him alive. It doesn't work.
While an effective horror film (and clearly a good choice for a Halloween movie marathon), Bride of Frankenstein actually works best as social criticism and moral warning. Dr. Frankenstein has seen first-hand what happens when man attempts to play God, and has sworn off the experiments, but is persuaded and then blackmailed by his old mentor, Dr. Pretorius to construct another monster--a bride--and with it a monster race. The monster (Boris Karloff) is simply lonely and willing to help in any efforts to create a companion. The assumption around town is that the monster is a dangerous killing machine, hell-bent on destruction, but we see quickly that he is simply misunderstood. In a touching scene, he stumbles upon the cabin of a blind violin player. The monster cannot speak and the old man cannot see, but he is perceptive enough to realize the monster is injured, hungry, and inherently docile. Naturally, he has no idea the monster has been assembled from the body parts of other people; all that matters to him is that he has prayed for a companion and God has sent him one. They form a fast friendship. The old man teaches the monster how to speak basic words ("friend good") and plays the violin for him, once again showing us that even the most repulsive creatures can be captivated by beautiful music. The domestic bliss is interrupted, however, when a search party tries to take the monster away and in the ensuing struggle, the cabin catches fire.
It's a joy to see Boris Karloff lurch around the stage as Frankenstein's monster. He brings a range you wouldn't expect into the role and manages to fill this invention with a sense of humanity. The rest of the acting, however, is pretty bad. Clearly the cast is made up primarily of Shakespearian-trained stage actors who seem to think they're in some odd production of Hamlet. Then again, at this point in time, film acting hadn't been really taught anywhere as an different discipline than stage acting. So the campiness of it, while laughable, is understandable, I guess.
Eh, but who cares about bad acting and moral lessons anyway? We're here to see Karloff's Monster lurch and grunt and beat people up, and that's what we get. And as an added bonus, he cries. What more can you ask for from a monster?
 The exception being the second monster, played by Elsa Lanchester in a dual role. She's great as the Monster's Mate. Supposedly, she based the character on ill-tempered swans she saw in a London park.